This is the first draft for a chapter on Satya (nonlying.) If you'd like to suggest edits or comments please visit the working document here.
Childhood is weird. No matter what the circumstances are, being a kid means that you have no direct control over your life. It means that you are small and always below the adults who tower above you and make choices that shape your perception of normal. And you’re porous. As a kid you absorb your immediate environments without the ability to filter through them with logic or comparison. When you’re a kid you take things personally... because you’re a person... and you feel things, so they’re real... and not taking things so personally is a trick that adults do. Or at least say they do.
In childhood, honest perceptions become the darnedest things. Kids point out the things that adults pretend they don’t see. Kids ask questions about taboos. They listen to actions. When actions don’t line up with words kids won’t pretend to understand, they’ll show you where you’ve tricked yourself into believing your own stories and ignoring your own behavior. Kids are honest about the basics: pleasure and pain. When they’re younger we see it in their bodies and their instincts, there’s no pretending or masking, they want what they want. As they grow and learn to talk and gesture they also learn to lie and manipulate. So in early childhood we teach them about ethics… These are the things that are important: be as kind to others as you want others to be to you; don’t take what’s not yours; ask nicely; don’t lie.
In regards to her somatics and therapeutics work, I’ve often heard Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen say that she prefers working with infants and young kids because they’re honest. Dealing with older people can be frustrating and arduous. To get to the actual instincts and responses means that layers of facade and learned behaviors have to get sorted through first. Infants and kids on the other hand, are still immediate, still present, still trusting enough to be real.
It’s usually around six or seven years old, coinciding with the beginning of elementary education, that honesty starts to unfold as the complex beast that it is. Maybe it’s the social pressure of school, maybe it’s the cognitive and biological development of the age, maybe it’s the first Saturn square of the astrological cycle… but it’s somewhere around then that honesty becomes less about personal, immediate desire, and more about comparison with peers. At this age the world starts to open up. School introduces other people who come from different kinds of families with different social and economic realities and priorities. There are more adults presenting more possibilities of what grown-ups can be. Stories pass through whispers about what so-and-so did and introduce ideas that were inconceivable before. It seems to be around this age that honesty becomes more malleable – that people realize they can still technically tell the truth, without being truthful at all.
Lying is an art. To tell a good lie there has to be some part of you that believes what you’re saying. There has to be a part of you that even if you know it’s not true, thinks that it should be true. Lying depends on conviction, it depends on the feeling you have when you say something. Telling a falsehood is one way to lie. Delivering information to someone else that you know is not true. Creating an impression in another person that reality is different than what you know it to be.
Another way to lie is by concealing information. This form of lying isn’t about giving untruthful information per se, but rather it’s about not giving information at all. Or just giving some of the truth, but not all of it. It might be a technique of focusing on other elements or using distraction. It might be feigned ignorance. Concealing truth also depends on belief that whatever is being concealed should be – that for whatever reason that information is better off hidden.
Lying doesn’t always depend on words. In fact, lying often seems to manifest as energy and intention. The person who’s lying may know it or not –but if you’ve been lied to in this way (or been the person who lies) you know how words can sound like one thing, but vibes feel very different. You know that subtle, nagging un-comfort when something just doesn’t sit right. If you’ve lied in this way you know the vigilance and psychic sensitivity it takes. You know how it is to watch cues and monitor attention. You know how it is to adjust yourself in order to avoid revealing the truth.
Whatever kind of lie you’re telling, what makes a lie is the knowledge that what you’re putting out isn’t (fully) true. And because truth is a huge, subjective, multi-faceted experience that shifts depending on who you ask, this might be the only distinguishing factor of a lie.
The second of the five yamas, Satya, can be translated as non-lying, or truthfulness. But in thinking about these two definitions it seems that they are different things. I think about not lying as a task. It is a rudimentary and basic principle. It’s a recognition on some level that matter is formed from sound, and that when you verbalize something it becomes real. So you shouldn’t use your words in such a way that they create structures of experience (for yourself as well as others) which have no foundation in reality. Not lying, for me, is based in words. It includes not telling half-truths, and not obscuring information through a lack of words. Not lying means to consciously use your words responsibly.
Truthfulness on the other hand, is something entirely different. Being truthful includes not lying, but it also includes awareness of inner experience that is often far below the level of words. Where not lying is a task – a thing you can choose to do – truthfulness is a practice, something that never ends. Truthfulness requires adherence to the first virtue of nonviolence. Along with not telling lies it also means listening deeply, because sometimes there are many truths, and so we have to choose which ones we express. Truthfulness is awareness of feeling and motivation. It is the willingness to accept and own-up to our own instincts and desires to lie.
One of the many ways that children are teachers is that they reflect back to us grown-ups the things we try to avoid in ourselves: selfishness, greed, the desire to be rewarded, and the fear of punishment. As we grow, hopefully we become more responsible with our words, but also hopefully we become more attuned to our motivations. For me, the difference between truthfulness and not-lying is intention. You can be honest with your words while having contradictory or undermining feeling and intent. The ability to sense this, and to make conscious choices in this place of often slippery perspectives, is the difference.
I started off talking about kids because all of us experience multiple truths daily, and these truths often have ages associated to them. We were all kids once, and learned to behave and respond as products of our environments. We can observe in kids the modification of behavior in order to earn rewards, or avoid shame. We can observe those instincts in ourselves too, though usually they’re buried under a lot of other learned behaviors. So developing the ability to listen to whose voice is talking is developing a practice of truthfulness. Knowing when we’re behaving or speaking in ways that are rooted in insecurity doesn’t mean that we don’t have insecure instincts, it simply means that we are aware enough to make choices about acting on them.
I grew up with a parent who was significantly damaged. I don’t care to pathologize or label, mostly because labels are their own kinds of lies that can never express the complexity or conditions that lead to a person’s behavior. But I can say that I learned from a very young age to lie and manipulate the truth in order to avoid the discomfort of angry outbursts. I learned how to hide feelings that would disappoint. I learned that intimacy and love equate to hostility and guilt. Later in my life when my other parent died I learned to distance myself from my own fear, and to pack it away in unseen places. I learned how to prioritize my own survival and autonomy, because that felt much more like truth than trusting anyone else to stick around.
I spent a lot of years living in a certain version of truth. I’d say that truth was somewhere between six and ten years old. From that version of truth I had enough understanding of basic instincts that I knew how to sneak and undermine in order to get my needs met instead of just crying. I had no confidence however that my needs would be met outright, because my experience as a young person was that life was unstable, and simply asking for something rarely delivered the outcome I wanted. So from this standpoint I could easily justify half-truths and concealment. And it’s not that I was lying in order to hurt anyone else, I was lying to others because I had learned lies about myself. As kids we rarely understand that not getting our needs met isn’t a reflection of whether we’re worthy of having our needs met. We take things personally, because we’re people, and we feel things. So when the sustenance, shelter, affection, patience, or correct boundary isn’t given lovingly, we either normalize it and/or we think it’s our fault, and we take it on as if we are somehow responsible.
In my experience it’s these kinds of lies that are most pervasive. Not the lies we often think of as in someone who’s out to cheat you, or telling lies to get away with something. But the kinds of lies we tell because for some reason we don’t trust another’s reaction, or their ability to respond maturely and appropriately to what we say. A lot of times these lies are care-taking lies or coddling lies. They are lies we tell because we want to protect something, lies we tell for someone else’s “own good.” These are the kinds of lies that seek to control the future and that make assumptions about what other people want. These are the kinds of lies that end up being a prison we live in. These are the kinds of lies we wake up from someday and realize we’ve given the freedom and truthfulness of our lives away.
When contemplating upon the yamas, the instruction is to always come back to ahimsa, nonviolence. This is because the truth has always been a slippery thing, and ultimately it’s up to us as individuals to make our own choices. In Ethics For A New Millennium, The Dalai Lama points out* that given the diversity of cultural understanding and priorities, there is no possible way to determine a universal right or wrong. So what we are left with is the concept of ethics, and ethics is a constant practice, not a single decision. Taken in this way, as a measurement for ethical consideration, nonviolence is the ultimate standard that we can adhere to.
So what is nonviolence as a measurement of truth? Firstly, for me, it’s considering who’s speaking. There are times we may express truth, but the truth is coming from our inner four-year old who’s freaking out about something. There are times when we speak a truth that doesn’t do anyone any good to hear, and our motivations for speaking it are not caring or compassionate. There are other times we may express truth, while insisting that our truth is the only truth, and refusing to listen or acknowledge the truth of another. There are times when we bury our true feelings and speak words that commit our bodies and attention to people, places, or things that we don’t truly want to commit to. All of these truths are violent on some level: they put energy into motion that furthers reactivity and destruction; they hurt feelings and cause resentment; they oppress others; they oppress our own instincts and desires. When we consider who’s speaking (or acting) before we express, we take the time to check in with our intention and to feel which parts of ourselves are trying to take the lead.
Checking in though isn’t always easy, and sometimes it feels downright impossible. When there’s a situation that triggers your inner four-year old, that four-year old is the one who wants to lead the show. Being the grown-up means that first of all you have to identify and admit to your own childishness, secondly you have to be able to pause before you let that kid throw a tantrum, and third you have to find some way to both pacify the kid while also moving forward with an adult decision. None of that is easy.
One thing that I’ve learned trying to deal with my inner children (yes there are many of them) is that there are a few important keys. The first one is acknowledgement. Denying someone’s experience is never a good, or lasting, solution. Just like an actual four-year old, my inner four-year old freaks harder and louder when she feels like nobody’s paying attention. Unlike an actual four-year old who hopefully has parents who can be there, it’s no one’s job to show up for my inner kiddo except for me or my therapist. So when I start to feel reactive I try and catch myself in those first few moments and initiate a dialogue, first to figure out who’s talking, and second to acknowledge their experience.
The second key is to determine what needs can be met, and which ones can be readjusted. Figuring out how to meet a need means that I have to get to the core of the feeling and away from the story of whatever is triggering it. This is tricky and where having a good counselor or friend to talk to can be really helpful. This kind of sleuthing is, for me, the heart of honesty. It’s when we cut through the layers of illusion that keep us bound to unhealthy expectations and start to do the real work of knowing ourselves. Basic mindfulness is the most effective tool here. And basically, it’s really simple… After you’ve acknowledged you’re having a reaction and when you’re paying attention, then you just hang out and feel. A lot of times the basic need is simply acknowledgement and presence. Our four-year olds are freaking out, they don’t know why, neither do we, so we hold them for a while and then they calm down and get on with things. Often just this is enough. But in order to do it first we need to be honest with ourselves that we’re being reactive, and then we need to take the time to honestly listen without trying to fix anything or make anyone grow up.
If you’ve taken the time to acknowledge and listen with compassion, and if that’s not enough to calm down, then chances are there’s a specific and familiar issue that has been aggravated. Usually when the inner child is upset the issue is one that is felt deeply and relates to a belief or fear that we carry in our core. Core beliefs form the essence of how we see ourselves, others, the world, and the future. When a core belief has been triggered its mechanism is to prove that it’s right. This creates compulsive behavioral patterns where we find ourselves pushing into pain in order to validate our own suffering. As someone who has experienced abandonment, one example of a core belief that I’m very familiar with is, I’m not lovable. When I feel vulnerable I often find myself trying to get other people to confirm that I’m not lovable. How I do this depends on who I’m with, but I know it when I’m doing it because the feeling is insistent and no matter how many times or in what ways they might say they love me, it’s never enough for me to believe it.
It becomes easy to tell when a core belief has been triggered by learning what signs to look for. Signs of activation are different for everyone, but you know them when they’re up because they feel soooooo familiar. Signs that tell me I’m starting to react around a core belief are a tightening around my solar plexus and chest that feels restrictive to my breathing, and thoughts that start to jump into the future – usually with variations on the theme of abandonment: how it’s going to hurt, what it’s going to look like, how I’m going to get mad and make the person who’s abandoning me sorry for it… And of course, the conversations I mentioned above, where I push and push until I can get someone to affirm that they don’t love me at all. It can take a long time to learn to catch yourself before, or when you’re getting triggered, and often it’s easier to see the signs in hindsight. The same old arguments, or similar relationship dynamics that present themselves again and again are usually clues.
When you’ve located the familiar feelings or situations the next thing to do is look at what you’re projecting. Core beliefs work to stay alive by convincing you that others believe these things about you. Very rarely are we able to admit that we don’t love ourselves or don’t think we’re valuable. But a lot of the time we can easily project that onto other people and believe that they don’t love us, don’t think we’re valuable, or think we’re somehow wrong and bad. If you notice that you often have the same storyline running through your head about someone else’s thoughts or feelings towards you, chances are good that you’ve actually come across your own core belief. When you’ve found the core belief the next thing you do is treat it just like you would a little kid who’s feeling insecure. You might ask yourself things like, do you really believe that to be true, or inquire as to why that belief is there. And just like with kids, when we show up for ourselves with patience, compassion, and a good sense of humor, the result is going to be a lot better than if we show up with negativity, blame, or anger. Getting pissed at yourself or telling yourself you’re being dumb probably won’t be as effective as pointing out to yourself how you are lovable and good. But in order to do that you have to be honest and tell the truth. And you have to be willing to listen to it.
So this is where I get to the point.
It’s impossible to believe the best about others if you believe the worst about yourself. It’s impossible to trust another’s good intent when you know your own intent to be undermining or resentful. As long as you think someone else might lie to you, you will feel justified in lying to them. To practice honesty goes hand-in-hand with creating relationships and mutual trustworthiness. To practice honesty means that you address your own insecurity and stop manipulating others to make you feel better about yourself. To practice honesty means that you see your goodness, worthiness, and lovability even when you mess up or do something “wrong.” It means that you develop a gauge for behavior and assess yourself accordingly – that you can admit when you made an honest mistake and forgive yourself, and that you can admit when you were acting immaturely and feel the impact of your choices.
When we speak something into the world it becomes permanent. Those sounds can never be removed from the minds of those who have heard. The resonance of our own speech vibrates in our bodies and becomes our flesh. If we know who’s voice is emerging from our mouths then we can trust our own honesty. If we’re uncertain- if there’s doubt, if there’s the inner knowing that the things we’re saying are coming from fear, bias, or a place inside that isn’t yet resolved – then by speaking those words we ourselves become more uncertain and less aligned. To speak truth is to know in your very deepest center that the sounds you’re making have integrity with your heart, and with all your intention for what will be. To speak truth means that you care enough about the future to consider what you’re laying down now that others will build on and put stock in.
Page 27 “...we must allow that people’s understanding of what is good and right, or what is wrong and bad, or what is morally appropriate and what is not, of what constitutes a positive act and what a negative act must vary according to circumstances and even from person to person. But here let me say that no one should suppose it could ever be possible to devise a set of rules or laws to provide us with the answer to every ethical dilemma, even if we were to accept religion as the basis of morality. Such a formulaic approach would never capture the richness and diversity of human experience.”